If anyone can stop Rafael Nadal from winning his record-extending 13th Roland Garros title—which would make him 26-0 in semifinals and finals on the terre battue—and his 100th match overall at the clay-court major, it’s Novak Djokovic. The pandemic may have cost tennis fans Indian Wells, Miami, Wimbledon and many other excellent tournaments, but Djokovic-Nadal LVI, in this setting, is at least some level of payback.
Nobody has beaten Djokovic more times than Nadal, and vice-versa. The Serb leads their head-to-head record 29-26, and is just one of two players to get the better of Nadal at Roland Garros. Just watching the highlights of their storied rivalry is an all-day activity. We can argue endlessly about tennis’ greatest-ever rivalries, but if your metric is based on the number of points that drop your jaw, or the amount of times you question whether the athletes are actually human or not, this is the match-up for you.
In the words of ATP commentator Robbie Koenig, Djokovic and Nadal frequently deliver “tennis nearer the gods.”
“TENNIS NEARER THE GODS” ????— Tennis TV (@TennisTV) January 26, 2019
Iconic rally deserves iconic commentary... pic.twitter.com/e3HOEtTiAs
There are many reasons this match-up is unlike any other. For one, the physical fitness and mental toughness on display are unequaled. But at the end of the day, the primary pattern— Nadal’s forehand to Djokovic’s backhand—pits two of the best shots in tennis history against one another nearly every point. On clay, neither player earns a surplus of free points on serve, but they remain the two best returners in the world. Almost every single point must be earned the hard way.
“The only thing I know is to play against Novak, I need to play my best,” Nadal told press. “Without playing my best tennis, the situation is very difficult. I know that is a court that I have been playing well for such a long time, so that helps. But at the same time he has an amazing record here, too, being in the final rounds almost every single time.”
Nadal’s running crosscourt forehand is one of the game’s ultimate cheat codes. If you attack his forehand, it’s important to force an error or hit a clean winner, like Djokovic does below with an inside-out forehand:
If you fail to hit a clean winner, not only does the point start over, it begins with the world’s heaviest forehand falling nearly 20 feet from the sky:
Nadal's ability to instantly transition from defense to offense is almost unfair—but so is Djokovic’s open-stance sliding backhand:
Djokovic has beaten Nadal on clay seven times. He has all the tools to do it an eighth time, but any analysis of their next battle must include this reminder: Nadal is 99-2 at Roland Garros. The Spaniard on clay is like Michael Phelps in water and Wayne Gretzky on ice.
If you google “most dominant athletes of all time,” a list pops up that includes Phelps, Kelly Slater, Floyd Mayweather, Jack Nicklaus, Tiger Woods and Martina Navratilova. Who’s at the top of the list? Nadal at Roland Garros. He’s a perfect 12-0 in French Open finals, and should improve to 13-0 on Sunday.
The Pick: Rafael Nadal